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The digital revolution is rapidly providing new opportunities to reach more people with mental health conditions. And it's never been more popular or more vital than during a global pandemic, which is overwhelming an already burdened mental health system.

So, while waiting lists to access mental health services grow, digital mental health programs provide relief to those in regional and remote areas and people who prefer anonymity or self-help for mild symptoms.

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It's also helping clinicians bridge a gap that's becoming increasingly wider – especially for those most in need who are waiting for appointments. But what exactly does digital mental health care involve, and how effective is it?

What is digital mental health?

Digital mental health is a service delivered either online or via mobile or phone. This service often includes programs, apps, online support communities, emails, webchats and telephone and crisis counselling lines, but it's progressively evolving with the advent of machine learning and virtual reality technology.

The digital mental health sector is an exciting frontier – and those behind it are breaking down barriers so that all Australians have access to meaningful treatment. We spoke to one digital mental health crusader, mental health nurse Jay Court, to find out more.

Digital mental health nurse – meet Jay Court

As the Digital Mental Health Engagement Lead for THIS WAY UP, Ms Court educates clinicians and the community on digital mental health care's potential and how it can make a positive difference to many lives.

"A typical day often involves delivering presentations on how digital mental health treatments can be integrated into routine care.

"I liaise with our partner organisations, try to understand the needs of our community of clinicians and develop features and resources that support the amazing work they do.

"I recently worked … on a suite of videos and animations to support clinicians and service users to understand how digital treatments can help.

"It's great to collaborate with clinicians and researchers on these resources. We're always looking to improve mental health literacy through our communication channels and hopefully remove the stigmas associated with mental health."

Ms Court says she's passionate about creative storytelling, and with a background in broadcast documentaries, a role in digital mental health care was a perfect fit.

"I … worked on a documentary series based at St Vincent's hospital, and I decided that nursing was a way I could make a difference.

"I considered midwifery initially, but during my nursing studies, I realised that mental health nursing was a way for me to draw on the communication skills I've developed throughout my professional life."

One of the main challenges digital mental health care faces is hesitancy from clinicians about online treatments, explains Ms Court.

"I enjoy coming up with novel approaches to support clinicians in the community.

"A lot of my role is supporting clinicians with questions and concerns and helping them to understand how digital treatments can complement rather than replace their face-to-face or telehealth care.

"One area in particular that clinicians find helpful about digital treatments is in waitlist management."

Digital mental health care programs are proving as successful as in-person treatments for many mental health conditions.

In research studies by THIS WAY UP, 80 per cent of people diagnosed with anxiety and/or depression who completed an online mental health treatment course reported a significant improvement in how they feel. Further, 50 per cent of participants reported that they were no longer troubled by their symptoms.

However, while technology is increasingly offering the potential for cost-effective and scalable mental health support, not everyone can use online programs as a complete treatment.

"It's worth understanding that digital treatments can be a stand-alone treatment for some people, while others may benefit from working through a course with their GP or another health professional.

"We advocate for a blended approach to digital mental health treatments, where clinicians can use these digital treatments with their clients to complement their sessions.

"The digital tools are there to support clinicians by offering a platform for their clients to learn the foundational skills of CBT outside of the face-to-face therapy session, and instead use the valuable time with their clinicians to work on more personalised treatment strategies.

"These tools can be blended with face-to-face or telehealth care, or used as an active waitlist management tool for people to start receiving treatment while they await traditional care," says Ms Court. 

COVID-19 and digital mental health care

COVID-19 significantly increased the demand for digital mental health care, says Ms Court, with THIS WAY UP observing a 504 per cent increase in monthly registrations for cognitive behavioural therapy courses.

"We've seen the mental health service delivery landscape transform since the COVID-19 pandemic started.

"Dr Mahoney at the Clinical Research Unit for Anxiety and Depression (CRUfAD), where THIS WAY UP was developed, recently published a paper analysing the uptake and effectiveness of online cognitive behaviour therapy for symptoms of anxiety and depression during COVID-19.

"In this paper, and other research underway, it appears there has been a significant increase in uptake of digital mental health treatments, specifically online cognitive behavioural therapy (iCBT), since the beginning of the pandemic."

So, why are people gravitating towards these online programs? Ms Court believes for those struggling to find treatment when they need it most, it breaks down many barriers.

"Some common barriers to care include shame, stigma, waitlists, cost and travel times.

"Digital treatment options are accessible at any time from the comfort of home at little to no cost."

When it comes to who benefits most, Ms Court says you'd be surprised.

"Many people benefit from digital mental health care treatments, including those of varying ages, genders and those who also have physical health conditions.

"While people often assume older people may struggle with digital options, our research shows that older people adhere well to our programs and enjoy positive outcomes as a result."


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Haley Williams

Haley Williams has a Bachelor of Communication in Journalism and over a decade of experience in the media, marketing and communications industries.

She is a widely published journalist with a particular interest in writing magazine features on parenting, health, fitness, nutrition and education.

Before becoming a freelance journalist, Haley worked as a writer for NeoLife (a worldwide nutrition company), News Limited and APN News & Media.

Haley also has extensive experience as an SEO Content Writer and Digital Marketing Strategist.